Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Harboring Dog May Lead To Liability

If you live in Wisconsin and allow someone with a dog to live with you, you may well be liable for the dog's bite. The Wisconsin Supreme Court held yesterday that the owner of premises was the "harborer" or "keeper"of the dog in such circumstances and that summary judgment could not be granted to the defendant and her insurer:

In June or July of 2003, Ms. Seefeldt [the defendant] agreed to let Walter Waterman, an acquaintance of her daughter, move into her home when he was unemployed and needed a place to stay where he could keep his two dogs.  Ms. Seefeldt had three of her own dogs and a large fenced backyard.  Mr. Waterman never paid rent; they apparently had an informal arrangement that Mr. Waterman would help with some home repairs and housekeeping. 

Ms. Seefeldt reported that when Mr. Waterman moved in, she was told that the dogs, Boo and Diesel, were friendly, but she also acknowledged that Mr. Waterman told her that Boo had recently nipped a six-year-old girl on the arm and frightened her.  Ms. Seefeldt stated she was not told of any other incident in which Boo injured anyone. 

On the afternoon of October 26, 2003, as Colleen Pawlowski walked in front of Ms. Seefeldt's home, she heard a sound like a door opening and saw Mr. Waterman's two unleashed dogs jump off the porch and charge her.  Mr. Waterman chased the dogs and shouted to stop them but was unable to bring them under his control.  Boo jumped up on Colleen Pawlowski and tried to bite her left shoulder, tearing her coat.  The dog then bit at her left thigh and finally punctured her calf, causing Ms. Pawlowski to fall to her knee before Mr. Waterman was able to control both dogs.  Although her shoulder and thigh were uninjured, Ms. Pawlowski did suffer puncture wounds to her calf.

Mr. Waterman then grabbed the dogs and held them as he offered to give Colleen Pawlowski a ride home, which she declined.  Colleen Pawlowski observed that the skin was broken and told Mr. Waterman she would need to go to the emergency room.  She then walked to the end of the street, to the home of a neighbor whom she knew, and asked the neighbor for a ride

At the time the attack occurred, Ms. Seefeldt was at home.  She did not see the attack and did not learn of it until a police officer came to her door to investigate later that day.  Following the attack, Mr. Waterman apparently proceeded to the grocery store, taking his dogs with him.  When he returned to the house, Ms. Seefeldt asked him about the attack and Mr. Waterman relayed that when he had opened the door to leave for the grocery store the dogs had run into the street, toward Colleen Pawlowski, instead of running to the car.  He told her that Boo bit Colleen Pawlowski and that he had offered Ms. Pawlowski a ride home or to the doctor, but that she declined the offer.  Ms. Seefeldt told Mr. Waterman that Boo should be put to sleep, but she apparently did not seek further information about the incident.  One to two weeks later, Ms. Seefeldt asked Mr. Waterman and his dogs to leave her home. 

The court concluded:

...we conclude that Ms. Seefeldt was a statutorily defined owner of the dog under Wis. Stat. ยง 174.02 at the time of the dog bite.  She was a person who harbored the dog.  Her status as a harborer of the dog was not extinguished when the dog's legal owner took momentary control of the dog.  We also conclude that the traditional public policy factors that may preclude tort liability do not bar recovery in the present case.

(Mike Frisch)

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